Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fighting Big Flat: 2017 D.C. Randonneurs Frederick 300k ride report



The Frederick 300k (188 miles) is an institution on the D.C. Randonneurs' rotation, having first been ridden back around the turn of the century, near as I can tell.  It was my very first 300k back in 2012, and I vividly remember fighting 95-degree heat throughout the afternoon and wafting in on fumes in just under 14 hours.  Back then I was definitely of the mindset that a 300k might as well be a ride across Siberia -- I was posting periodic Facebook updates to let people know I was still alive, and my bike was weighed down with about 15 pounds of energy bars, most of which went uneaten.  It took me a couple of years to realize that, as rides get longer, the only thing that really changes is clothing. 

Another thing I remember about that ride is having my first encounter with a climb called "Big Flat." The first word is accurate; the second, less so.  But I'd only had the one crack at it, and I wanted a second.

One great thing about the D.C. region is that, depending on which way you go, the character of the rides changes fundamentally.  Head east toward the shore, and you'll never find anything flatter, with windswept beaches and wildlife preserves.  To the southwest is Virginia, where nothing is flat -- there are more rollers than a Broadway production of Hairspray.  To the west are mountains of varying degrees of seriousness.  Finally, to the northwest and north, in Maryland, there's a little bit of everything, and that's what this ride had to offer -- three solid climbs broken up with some Amish country and cornfields.

The goal was straightforward: finish under 12 hours, and thus complete the third of four requirements for R60 qualification.  To do that, I'd need to shave nearly two hours off of my 2012 attempt, when Max and I finished in 13:56.  Egads!  Fortunately, the weather called for a perfect range of 50 degrees at the start to 78 mid-day, so if it was going to happen, today was the day.  

Ride start, pretty in pink!  Photo credit: Ed F.
Of course, I'm a moron -- that's the first rule.  When faced with a ride more than an hour from home starting at 5:00 a.m., many sane people stay at a local hotel at the start/finish and make sure to get to bed early.  My version of this was going to a nice dinner with Amy in D.C. on Friday evening, then to after-dinner cocktails, and then to after-cocktails dessert with another cocktail, such that I got to sleep at about 12:30 after drinking all evening and woke up a little more than 2 hours later for a 190-mile ride.  Part of the story is that I'm stubbornly short-sighted, but the slightly longer version is that I recognize doing these rides knocks out a big chunk of the weekend that I'd otherwise be available to socialize.  I'm exhausted and useless when I get home, so it seems unfair to block off Friday night as well as Saturday and Saturday night -- cycling's not the only thing in life.  Of course, there's a healthy dollop of self-loathing when that alarm goes off in the middle of the night, and I'm not getting any younger.  I'm sure I'm sacrificing some performance with this tragic habit, but I like to think it adds a "degree of difficulty" score, like Olympic diving.  

Also, there's something vaguely weird about getting in an elevator at 3:00 a.m., fully bedecked in spandex, and nearly running headlong into someone smelling of booze who's getting home after an evening of revelry.  Worlds colliding.

The ride itself began at the Days Inn in Frederick, MD, as made famous by absolutely nothing.  On the plus side, it has a Waffle House attached to it.  We rolled out parade-style through the deserted streets of Frederick, which is always enjoyable in one of those "different ways of seeing the same thing" ways that cycling sometimes presents.  It's certainly better than returning through the same streets on Saturday evening, a pleasure we'd have later.  

I was the only rider with a time-based agenda, so I began to press the pace after an hour or so, when we reached the beautiful 5-mile climb up Foxville-Deerfield in the Catoctin Mountain Park.  It's one of the best climbs in the mid-Atlantic: peaceful, great pavement, a gradual slope through the forest, and a river rushing along next to you.  Soon after beginning the ascent, I found myself alone with Eric Willams, one of the stronger riders in the group, and someone who rides probably twice the miles that I do.  He climbs like a goat, and the two of us made great time to the summit -- I climbed it in 21:41, compared to my 29:07 in 2012.  A promising start!



More promising for me than Eric, though.  The poor guy had decided that, despite a ride start temperature in the high 40s, he'd head out with a short-sleeve jersey and no gloves.  A descent that was wonderful for me probably brought him no end of misery.  Oh well -- as he said, he knows better.  This is pretty much the first time I can remember on a bicycle when I wasn't the cautionary tale.

As the two of us plowed north toward Pennsylvania, Eric realized that cycling could be enjoyable rather than an exercise in self-flagellation, and accordingly drifted off the back, where he eventually joined up with a chase group of riders who had a thoroughly reasonable day.  I pressed on, trying my best to make it home in time for a wine tasting that Amy was hosting at our place that evening.

Next up was the featured attraction: Big Flat.  Below is the elevation profile for this ride: pick out the least flat part of it, and you've found it.  To be helpful, I've highlighted it.


It's not the toughest climb out there, but it's solid work, climbing about 1300 feet over nearly 7 miles. In 2012, I'd trudged my way up it in 46:35, but I guess I've gotten stronger: this year it was 34:42, good for 8th overall on Strava.  (I'm sure I'll be getting that pro contract any day now.)  It was a tough effort, but I consoled myself with the notion that it was almost literally all downhill from the summit.

I'll say this: the Michaux State Forest was a gorgeous place in full bloom, with bursts of whites, purples, reds, and yellows speckling the dark green backdrop.  Probably the perfect place to film an ad for Claritin, actually.

After the epic, swooping 9-mile descent into Shippensburg, PA, the mountains receded and Amish country beckoned.  Buggies, farmland, and sketchy roads unfolds for dozens of miles on end, and the sun came out to teach us a lesson.  Many people love these roads, but I found myself in that awkward mental position of having ridden a hard 80 miles and remembering that there's still more than a century to go.  Fortunately, the second half of the ride was relatively flat, so I anticipated making good time.  Maybe a sub-11:00 finish was in the cards?

To make a long story short, it wasn't.  And, come to think of it, the story wasn't that long: we were riding a huge clockwise loop beginning on the southernmost point, which meant that the last 80 miles or so were heading south and then southwest, directly into one of the most diabolical headwinds I can remember.  I was working my butt off just to go 17 mph.  Usually loop courses at least afford the dignity of benefitting and suffering from the same winds, but not in this case -- they picked up throughout the day, so it was just plowing ahead and hoping for respite that wasn't forthcoming.  At some point I decided that the goal was sub-12:00, and it wasn't worth wrecking myself for an attempt at a sub-11:00 finish that wasn't in the cards that day.  I just wanted a nap.

Ultimately, I rolled back into Frederick a little after 4:00 pm, having done what I needed to.  And, in fairness, I'd done well: my 2012 moving time was 11:55, and I'd taken 2 hours off of the bike, for a finishing time of about 13:55.  This year, I was moving for 10:36, and I was off the bike for only 35 minutes, for a final time of 11:10.  That's progress.  Enjoy the video!

Next up is the fl├Ęche, a 24-hour group ride that promises lots of eating.  I plan to P.R. at least one ice cream sundae.  



Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mike Hall Memorial 600k: Ignoring Limits



Sometimes awful things pile up and there's no way forward except to go smash something.  After three months of the hardest training I'd ever done, a calamitous throat infection knocked me out of the 24-hour race at Sebring.  I'd never felt stronger, but instead of clicking off hot laps, I was intubated and bludgeoned with every high-powered intravenous antibiotic they could find.  Things turned out "well," if by well one means losing weight I couldn't afford and struggling to complete a 1-hour easy spin.

Fortunately, after a substantial training adjustment in which I dropped the high-watt intervals in favor of extended sweet-spot sets, I started coming around after a few weeks.  In mid March, I DNF'd a 200k brevet when my routing went horribly awry, but I still felt good.  I decided to test things by leaping straight into a 600k (375-mile) brevet out of Lumberton, North Carolina, on April 1.  It was a flattish and unremarkable course apart from 30 miles of riding along the beach, but I figured it would be a good chance to test out a new saddle and hopefully check off a big box on one of my 2017 projects, i.e., a Randonneurs Mondiaux R60 designation.  

Apart from the Charly Miller Society, which requires that a rider finish the quadrennial Paris-Brest-Paris 1200k in under 56 hours and 40 minutes, the R60 is probably the toughest honor to achieve in the randonneuring world.  It requires that one complete a Super Randonneur series (200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k), each in under 60% of the allotted time.  That makes the requirements as follows:

200k (125 miles) -- 8:06
300k (188 miles) -- 12:00
400k (250 miles) -- 16:12
600k (375 miles) -- 24:00

I'd finished a couple of 200ks well under the required time, which left the longer rides to attempt in the remainder of 2017.  My personal best on a 600k brevet was 25:40 or so, so I'd have to go faster, but on the other hand, my previous 600s had been on considerably hillier terrain and an older bike.  In 24-hour races, which are on fully-supported loops, I'd knocked out 600k in under 19 hours, but randonnees tend to be slow -- routing, controls, and the rest of it just tend to add up.  I hoped for 22 hours and thought it possible.

Unfortunately, only two days before the ride, the cycling world received the devastating news that Mike Hall had been hit and killed by a car while racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia.  Mike was a legend in the ultracycling world at the young age of 35: he held multiple records including fastest on a bicycle around the world and course record holder in the 4,300-mile, self-supported Trans America race.  He was one of the featured riders in Inspired to Ride, a Trans America documentary well worth anyone's attention.



How completely sickening.  We're now forced to add his name to those of Jure Robic (6x RAAM winner), Bob Breedlove, Claudio Clarindo, Anders Tesgaard, Matthew O'Neill, Lynn Kristianson, and many others avid ultracyclists who've been killed by cars in recent years while doing what they love.  For me, this is one of the top reasons I do so much of my riding indoors: I love to be outside on two wheels, but the more one does it, the more likely it is that the odds will get even.  Thus, I choose my battles carefully.  In Mike's case, from all accounts, it sounds like some of the roads the racers traversed were anything but safe, and that there were a number of uncomfortably close calls before the fatal incident.  It's utterly gutting to lose anyone that way, but particularly such an inspiration.  

In all, it wasn't a great mindset to take into a 600k solo ride on unknown road, but then again, maybe it was.  There's something to be said for the knowledge that we're privileged to be able to attempt these feats at all, and it's a gift we should celebrate.  

And so it was that I reported for duty at 6:00 a.m. in the parking lot behind a Super 8 hotel in Lumberton, North Carolina, looking pretty out of place.  Especially on longer events like 600ks, randonneurs tend to favor traditional setups with plenty of cargo capacity, but I looked more like a Martian, complete with disc wheel, Zipp 808 deep-rim front wheel, and aero helmet.  Perhaps overkill, but I figured that, if I wanted to go fast, there's no reason to leave the go-fast gear at home.  



To hit my goal of 22 hours, I'd have to average 17 miles an hour, which isn't generally a problem in terms of moving speed, but it also includes all of the stops and snafus along the way.  I'd probably have to average more than 19 mph while moving in order to do it, which isn't trivial over the span of nearly an entire day.  My best 24-hour race time is 20.5 mph, but that was fully supported, draft-legal, on a looped course where it was impossible to get lost, and on fully tapered legs.  Here, none of those things was true.  (It technically was draft-legal, I suppose, but as there was no one to draft off of, it was an academic point.)

One of the things that made me slightly nervous was that I'd be riding on a new saddle, the Selle Anatomica C Series.  I'd ridden on the traditional S-A leather saddles for years, but they're heavy as bricks and the leather needs to be re-tensioned periodically, and the carbon version promised to address both issues.  It's a beautiful thing, although, as a crowd-funder, I'd had to wait about two years to get it.



So, off we went!  With a 6:00 a.m. rollout, I hoped to be done between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning and sitting comfortably in a booth at Denny's across the street.  We'd have to see.

For once in my randonneuring life, things went remarkably smoothly.  Tony Goodnight's route was a joy to follow, with turns only every 10 miles or so in many places, and relatively few control points that forced one to stop.  But that came with challenges: with highs pushing 80 degrees and scheduled stops only every 60-70 miles, it was important to keep on top of the nutrition and hydration.  For me, it was a mental struggle between the desire to stop as infrequently as possible and the knowledge that the whole thing could go down the drain if I didn't eat and drink constantly.  I resolved that dilemma by ignoring my desire to stop more often, and never even slowing down between controls -- go big or go home.  The result was that, on a few occasions, I went 4+ hours between stops, which had me pretty much parched and ravenous by the time the next stop rolled around.

I've learned a couple of things about randonneuring nutrition over the years.  First, if you're in trouble on a hot day, there's little better than massive ice cream sandwiches -- cold, caloric, and satisfying.  Second, if you need a blood-sugar rush, those huge Rice Krispy Treat bars are about as close to rocket fuel as you can find.  Third, Bugles!  Enough said.  Rules to live by.

One of the big challenges in a ride this long is finding something to hold the mental focus.  Sometimes the zen silence is enough to set the mind wandering, but I've found that, as one fatigues and things start to get sore, the zen dissipates into something closer to self-resentment.  So, music is key some of the time, but podcasts and audiobooks also are great.  On this occasion, I made my way through S-Town the new release from the makers of Serial, a fair chunk of the latest John Grisham book, a couple of episodes of Freakonomcs, and some Judge John Hodgman.  And lo, the hours did pass.

The course itself was nothing to write home about -- flattish, quite windy (constant 15-20 mph), and largely along country roads lined by pine trees.  At one point we crossed the Intracoastal Waterway before riding 15 miles along the barrier islands to Atlantic Beach, and then back again.  The roads were the highest of highs and lowest of lows, mostly great but with the occasional stretch that would have insulted a cheese grater.  

It was largely a mental game.  With the wind at the back, rolling at 22 mph felt effortless, but the price was a couple of stretches of 20+ miles into headwinds that felt like a sick joke.  My power meter was on the fritz, registering zeroes randomly when I was pushing darn hard, but I gave up trying to fix it after awhile.

In terms of moving speed, things went amazingly well for the first half:

100 miles -- 4:53
200k -- 5:59
300k -- 9:25

Each of those was a personal best for me on a brevet by a considerable margin.  By halfway, I was on pace for a sub-19 hour finish, but I was self-aware enough to know that such extrapolation is dangerous.  Riding at night tends to be slow, and with fatigue being what it is, stops tend to get longer and the average speed tends to drift south.

There's a mathematical issue I've noticed on these events that never ceases to throw me for a loop.  (Many people doubtless know this already -- I'm willing to embrace the fact that it's my issue.)  The issue is this.  Given my spectacular speed over the first half, I'd dared to adjust my target down from 22 hours to 20 hours.  10 hours in, my average speed was about 20 mph.  I knew that a 20-hour finish required an overall average speed of 18.6 mph, so I reasoned as follows: since I've gone 20 mph for the first half, I can go 17.2 mph for the second half to achieve an average of 18.6!  (17.2 + 20)/2 = 18.6!

Except the math doesn't work.  After riding for 10 hours at 20 mph, I'd gone 200 miles, which meant I had 175 miles to go in the second 10 hours.   175/10 = 17.5 mph, not 17.2.  Sigh.  Not that the 0.3 mph delta was huge, but when things are falling apart at the end of a ride, things like that matter.

After a 9:25 first 300k, a sub-20-hour finish required a 10:35 second 300k.  That's an hour slower, but it was still way faster than my 300k personal best heading into this ride, and much of it would be riding at night.  To make matters worse, I encountered a road closure with a massive traffic jam due to an accident with fatalities, and I got turned around a couple of times where the route crossed over itself.  And, of course, there was the challenge I encountered at mile 300, where I completed an 80-mile stretch completely empty of water, calories, and hope.  That prompted an extended break in the welcoming embrace of an Exxon station.

Ultimately, though, I've rarely felt this strong.  I finished in 19:38, fully six hours faster than my previous best at the distance.  After my 9:25 opening 300k, my second 300k had clicked off in 10:13!   Thus, my best and second-best 300ks were ridden back-to-back, which has to say something positive about my training.

I'll confess I'm pretty over-the-moon about this outcome.  As far as I can tell, it's the third-fastest official 600k brevet ever ridden in the United States -- the first is a 19:30 and the second a 19:34, so I was just a handful of minutes away.  Part of me thinks that, given that I was stopped for about 1:50 over the course of the ride, I surely could have gone 10 minutes faster, but I had no idea I was so close to the record, and frankly, who knows.  As a statistical matter, this graph puts things into perspective:


This shows the official 600k completion times in the United States from 1999-2011, and the chart begins at 20 hours, with the median up in the mid-30s.


I'm also happy to report that the Selle Anatomica Carbon Series saddle worked perfectly -- I think it's a keeper.  It's noticeably harder than the leather hammock that the traditional S-A offers, but it never was uncomfortable.  This may be because of the Mummy Tape I apply to my sitbones before all long rides, but whatever the case, it was nice to finish a 600k and be able to sit down comfortably.

So, mission accomplished!  I felt strong virtually the entire way, and I truly loved finishing before 2:00 a.m. and thus avoiding the witching hours that come later in the morning.  It's been a very long time since I've been at a Denny's at 3:00 a.m., but such was my reward.  Next up, trying to get my legs working again and recalibrate myself toward an upcoming 300k, where I'll try to put the next brick in the R60 wall.